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Time for some introspection

Unless India is able to lock Colombo in a bilateral security relationship, the Sinhalese leadership will have no qualms about allowing China or Pakistan to get a foothold in the region, writes TS Gopi Rethinaraj.

india Updated: Oct 16, 2008 20:58 IST

The all-party meeting chaired by Tamil Nadu’s (TN) Chief Minister M Karunanidhi on October 14 passed a resolution that MPs from the state would resign if the Centre failed to ensure a ceasefire in Sri Lanka (SL) in two weeks. Since current Indian perception of the ethnic conflict has been clouded by Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, it is instructive to review India’s past involvement in Sri Lanka and future options.

The goal of India’s SL policy since the 1950s was to prevent any hostile power getting a foothold in the neighbourhood. So, over the years, India pursued various policies — some of them at the expense of Sri Lankan Tamil interests — to placate the Sinhalese leadership. Even India’s support to Tamil militant groups in the 1980s angered the Sinh-alese leadership. India’s current policy towards the ethnic conflict is influenced by the fear that an independent Tamil Eelam will rekindle secessionist tendencies in TN. How-ever, this view is incorrect.

India’s policy since 1991 has sought the military defeat of the LTTE for the latter’s role in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) debacle. From the beginning, however, India’s SL policy failed to appreciate the historical roots of the ethnic conflict, which can be traced back to the wars between the Tamil and Sinhala kingdoms during the past several centuries. The LTTE’s conduct also has its share of problems. It has put an entire generation of Tamils through immense hardship. This bitter history makes rapprochement between the Sinhalese and Tamils almost impossible. Given these ground realities in Sri Lanka, what are India’s options?

It is clear that India cannot afford to remain fixated on its past bitterness with the LTTE while crafting its response to the ethnic conflict. The current policy stagnation, besides exacerbating the difficulties of Sri Lankan Tamils, can also be detrimental to India’s security. During the Cold War, there was some anxiety in India as Sri Lanka began building a closer relationship with the US. Such concerns are irrelevant now in the light of closer defence cooperation between the US and India. However, there is another potential threat to India’s southern frontiers: China is already playing a major role in building ports and potential naval bases in some Indian Ocean littoral states.

India formally extracted concessions from SL through the 1987 peace accord — currently in tatters — that Colombo will not allow any external powers in a way detrimental to Indian interests. However, Lanka has been building parallel defence cooperation tracks with China and Pakistan and the island has been brimming with Chinese and Pakistani intelligence operatives. Yet, India has helped SL to maintain its territorial integrity. This could prove to be costly. India cannot allow this situation to persist while putting pressure on the LTTE and providing military assistance to SL. A credible case could be built that an independent Tamil Eelam will be — for ethnic, linguistic, and religious reasons — friendlier towards India than the Sinhalese dispensation in Colombo.

Although the LTTE is banned in some countries there is also a realisation that any solution ignoring the militant outfit will not be viable. India should review its current policy and exert pressure on SL to seek a political solution for the ethnic conflict. Some argue that India’s current free trade agreement with SL will buy more influence among the Sinhalese leadership.

Unless India is able to lock SL in a broad bilateral security relationship, their leadership will have no qualms about allowing China or Pakistan to get a foothold. This is the real danger of India’s current policy facilitating the military defeat of the LTTE. If India were to take a hard-nosed view of its interests, a subtle shift in its position on the LTTE will go a long way in safeguarding its strategic interests in the region besides securing the interests of ethnic Tamils in the island. The all-party resolution should provide the UPA an opportunity to do some introspection about its Sri Lanka policy.

TS Gopi Rethinaraj teaches at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. This is a modified version of an op-ed piece that appeared in the April 2008 issue of Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review